So far this year, more than 330,000 people have crossed the Darien Gap on their journey towards North America – the highest annual figure recorded to date, OHCHR said. One in five was a child.
Risk of sexual violence
During the crossing, migrants and refugees are exposed to multiple human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence – “a particular risk for children, women, LGBTI people and people with disabilities”, said OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado.
She added that there were also murders, disappearances, trafficking, robbery, and intimidation by organised crime groups.
Ms. Hurtado pointed out that traveling on foot through the 575,000-hectare jungle was already perilous in itself, and a four to seven-day walk across the Darien Gap in the dry season could turn into a 10-day trip during the nine month-long rainy season.
The harrowing trek involves climbing steep mountains and crossing dangerous waterways.
OHCHR highlighted “limited humanitarian attention” both in Panama and Costa Rica as a factor that worsened the precarious living conditions in the two countries and increased vulnerabilities.
Last month, the UN quoted figures from Panamanian authorities showing that those crossing the jungle came mainly from Venezuela (55 per cent), Haiti (14 per cent), and Ecuador (14 per cent).
Some are coming from Colombia and Peru and children of Haitian parents born in Chile and Brazil have been recorded too.
Others come from as far away as China, Afghanistan and Nepal.
With the support of the international community, the Government of Panama has built three migration centres to provide shelter, food, health care and water and sanitation for those on the move, OHCHR said. Two are located in Darien province and one at the border with Costa Rica.
However, capacity remains stretched. OHCHR warned that amid rising numbers of incoming refugees and migrants, providing protection and aid was increasingly challenging for the authorities.
Avoid anti-migrant narratives
Ms. Hurtado said her office recognised the efforts being made by Costa Rica and Panama to meet humanitarian needs.
OHCHR called on the international community to strengthen its support to the States in the Americas to close protection gaps and to help address the structural factors forcing people to leave their homes.
Back in August, the UN migration agency (IOM) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) also urged a “collaborative, comprehensive and regional approach” in responding to humanitarian and protection needs of people on the move across the whole Latin America and Caribbean region.
Advocating for human rights-based solutions to migration governance challenges, OHCHR warned against “discriminatory, anti-migrant narratives” targeting vulnerable people on the move.